Suppose I visited a dog park to observe how people behaved when they saw dogs mating. Then suppose I submitted an article to this newspaper, arguing that our reactions to dogs having sex revealed our attitudes toward rape by humans. The editors would dismiss me as a crank who had spent too much time locked in an ivory tower. Professors aren't typically required to share their ideas with the broader public. Most of us talk only to each other, in ways that almost nobody else can understand.
That's the key to understanding the recent hoax involving a dog-sex article, which was accepted — really — by an academic journal. So were six other bogus articles produced by a three-person team, who went public with their ruse last week. Their aim, they said, was to highlight the sloppy group-think in what they called "grievance studies," especially in research about gender.
And they certainly did that. One of the articles pretended to analyze table talk at so-called "breastaurants," such as Hooters, uncovering "macho" behavior — can you believe it? — by male customers. Another claimed that men who masturbate while thinking about women are perpetrating sexual violence against them.
Some of the articles had made-up statistics, which gave them a more scientific sheen. According to the dog-park essay, humans intervened 97 percent of the time when male dogs were humping other male dogs but intervened only 32 percent of the time — and laughed out loud 18 percent of the time — when a male dog was mating with a female.
When readers themselves stopped laughing, reactions to the hoax broke down along predictable culture-war lines. To conservatives, the entire affair underscored the endemic progressive bias of the politically correct academy. As if to prove them right, meanwhile, liberal professors cast the hoax as a reactionary attack on their campaign for social justice.
Both sides missed the heart of the problem, which is that most academics write only for each other. Just last week, a study of promotion practices at more than 100 colleges in the U.S. and Canada confirmed that most institutions don't reward scholars who engage wider audiences.
To be sure, we all give lip service to serving the public. But the people who get the most recognition — and the highest pay — are those who publish in traditional academic journals. Writing for popular venues, like this newspaper, doesn't count nearly as much.
It might even count against you. When I was a junior professor, several seasoned faculty members advised me to stop writing my oped column. It made me look like a journalist — God forbid! — rather than a scholar, I was told. And if any reader could understand my ideas, how profound could they be?
But when we insulate ourselves from others, we narrow our minds. We fall prey to jargon, the Achilles heel of academia. And we echo the worst aspects of contemporary American culture, which has fractured into mutually hostile ideological cocoons.
Perhaps this latest scandal can help us forge a new truce around a simple premise: Academia needs to broaden its audience. If you're a conservative worried about liberal bias, wouldn't you want professors to defend their ideas in the public square? And if you're a liberal dedicated to social justice, shouldn't you want every professor to share their wisdom with people who haven't encountered it?
The problem here isn't gender studies, which has cast new light upon American history, culture, and politics. Instead, the problem is that too many academics who study gender — and sexuality, and race, and many other subjects — aren't required to tell laypeople about what they have learned.
That needs to change. Everyone who becomes a professor should have to engage popular audiences via opeds, blogs, TED talks, and other public media. That will make us all better at what we do, because we will have to make a case for it beyond our own confines.
And if we prepare academics to converse with the public, they'll also be able to get jobs outside of academia. Universities have scaled back on hiring in recent years, leaving scores of embittered and unemployed Ph.D's in their wake. Continuing to train people who can only work in the academy isn't just bad politics, it's malpractice.
Finally, public engagement will discourage the in-group mumbo-jumbo that was exposed in the recent hoax. The dog-park article would have never made it into this newspaper, of course. And that's precisely why we should be teaching future professors to write for it.